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‘Theater of despair’

Hinda Tzivia Eisen, Northeastern’s 2013-2014 Gideon Klein Scholar, began her lecture at the university’s Holocaust Commemoration on Tuesday morning by asking a rhetorical question: Could the Westerbork Cabaret, a performance troupe comprising inmates at a World War II detention camp in the Netherlands, be revived with the same spirit in which it was originally intended?

The answer, Eisen later told the audience of about 100 students, faculty, and staff, was a resounding no—“not because you couldn’t sing the songs, translate the scripts, tell the same jokes,” she said, “but because the audience and the milieu no longer exist in society today.”

Eisen’s lecture kicked off Northeastern’s annual Holocaust Awareness Week, which is presented by the Humanities Center and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities in partnership with the Holocaust Awareness Committee. Titled “Remembrance and Restitution,” the commemorative and educational series of events —including a panel discussion, a survivor talk, and a film screening—aim to reflect on the Holocaust’s legacy in the 21st century.

Following Eisen’s talk, two Northeastern researchers discussed their experiences in leading a group of undergraduate students on a Holocaust-themed Dialogue of Civilizations program to Germany and Poland last summer. Natalie Bormann and Veronica Czastkiewicz, an academic specialist and a doctoral candidate in the political science department, respectively, explored the ethics of visiting sites of trauma and chronicled the challenges of navigating today’s landscape of Holocaust memorials.

Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, underscored the value of the weeklong commemoration in his introductory remarks. “Holocaust Awareness Week reminds us that indifference to evil is the same as complicity,” he said. “We are here to remember the victims of genocide and to honor those who have worked against it.”

Eisen’s presentation honored a score of German-Jewish inmates at the Westerbork detention camp, who staged six theatrical productions from July 1943 to June 1944. Located in the northeast region of the Netherlands, the camp famously housed Anne Frank and her family before they were deported to Auschwitz, and was ruled by 1st Lt. Alfred Gemmeker, whom Eisen described as a “patron of the arts.”

Gemmeker, she said, routinely invited the Jewish artists into his home, and yet “still sought their deportation to ‘the east’ as a necessity of the Nazi cause.”

One of the artists he liked was cabaret director Max Ehrlich, a German actor and screenwriter who was killed at Auschwitz on Oct. 1, 1944. Under his direction, Eisen said, the cabaret troupe aimed to “bring light into the darkness, not to utopianize the outside world, just to bring comedy to the dark situation they found themselves in.”

But it was an almost impossible task. In fact, Eisen said, the prospect of survival was so bleak that the Westerbork Cabaret became known as the theater of despair “because of its ability to decide who lived, at least while involved in production, and who was deported to ‘the east’ to be murdered.” In the end, the numbers told the story: of more than 50 troupe members, only two survived the war.

Eisen is a graduate student at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music. The Gideon Klein Award—which honors the memory of the Czech pianist and composer who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945—is annually bestowed upon one student, who receives $5,000 to study the work of artists who were persecuted by the Nazis. Bill Giessen, a former Northeastern professor who grew up in Nazi Germany and passed away in 2010, established the award in 1997 in memory of his mother, Gustel Cormann Giessen.